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Jenny Hocking: victor in a dogged pursuit of our missing history

She marched against Malcolm Fraser, who engineered Whitlam’s defeat by blocking his government’s cash flow in the Senate and succeeded him as prime minister, but did not rush into academic work on the subject. Instead, she studied terrorism before the September 11, 2001 attacks that made it the academic vogue. A biography of Whitlam’s attorney-general, Lionel Murphy, more work on counter-terrorism and a study of leftist author Frank Hardy followed.

Eventually, Hocking was drawn back to Whitlam but the biography could have been derailed. Hocking wrote to Whitlam, then in his 80s, in the early 2000s asking for an interview. His handwritten reply, faxed back to her, languished on a Monash University fax machine for a week. “Somebody came to my door … one day holding a piece of paper and said, ‘Oh, Jenny, I think you probably want to look at this’,” she recalls. “It had fallen down the back of the fax machine.”

Frank Bongiorno, a history professor at the Australian National University, describes Hocking as “pro-Whitlam” for his contribution to Australian life and politics. While her two-volume book is not uncritical, Hocking, who is on the national committee of the Australian Republican Movement, says she admires Whitlam but is not “pro-Whitlam”.

How did she get the palace letters?

Not easily. It has been a decade since Hocking first tried to get the letters, listed under the anodyne label “Record AA1984/609” in the National Archives and filed under “personal”, meaning unlike most government files, they were not accessible 30 years after their creation.

A freedom of information request failed, as did an attempt to access photocopies of the original letters, also held by the archives. “I did nothing for several years,” Hocking says. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s intervention in 2015 changed that when he let it be known he would try to persuade Buckingham Palace to rescind the veto it had placed (with dubious authority) over the letters’ release before 2027 at the earliest. That triggered Hocking’s approach to barrister Tom Brennan, who had argued Australia’s own laws meant the letters had been misclassified. In other words, it wasn’t up to Sir John and the Palace to set the terms for their release. They had, Brennan argued, been public records all along.

Professor Jenny Hocking.

Professor Jenny Hocking.Credit:Joe Benke

A raft of players eventually lined up to oppose Brennan’s argument in court: the archives, the governor-general’s office, the federal government and Buckingham Palace. On Hocking’s side were Brennan, Gough’s son, Antony Whitlam, QC, and then Bret Walker, SC, the barrister who won George Pell’s appeal and is running the inquiry into the Ruby Princess debacle. All gave their time for free, as did law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth.

Bongiorno says that while he thought the letters being kept secret was “preposterous”, many historians thought Hocking’s case was a “rank outside chance”, given her opponents. “It says a lot for her courage and dogged persistence that she has been able to succeed,” he adds.

The costs were still significant. If Hocking lost, she was up for $30,000 of the archives’ legal costs from the Federal Court, which had ruled against her, plus another $60,000 for the High Court. But Hocking did not lose. Six judges of the High Court ruled in her favour.

Why do the letters matter?

Short of Queen Elizabeth sitting down for a tell-all interview, the letters held the last major pieces of missing information about the dismissal, the greatest convulsion in modern Australian democracy, and one that could happen again.

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Their meaning is up for interpretation. In Hocking’s view, they show a governor-general leaning on the Queen’s private secretary for advice much more than he should have, getting reassurance on the steps he has taken before the dismissal, scholarly texts on his power to dismiss a government and suggestions he do so only for the right reasons, all with no warning to the prime minister. Others have taken a different view, focusing on the Queen’s lack of explicit knowledge or approval of the dismissal and her secretary’s words of caution. With a book, The Palace Letters, and a documentary on the way, Hocking will no doubt have more to say.

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